3D Printers components - how 3D printers work

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3D printers gained popularity soon after they were available for commercial use. They proved to be very useful for manufacturers looking for an easy way to create parts for the items they manufacture. The first 3D printer was created 30 years ago, and since then, this wonderful device has taken the world by storm. 

So, what does it really take to create a 3D printer? What components make up this useful yet simple device? In this blog post, you will get to know about the components that come together to create a 3D printer, and how do they work together to make three-dimensional printing possible. 

Here is the list of components that a 3D printer consists of:

Controller Board



Stepper Motors


Threaded rods

End Stops

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

Print Bed

Print Bed Surface

Print Head

Feeder System

Dual Extrusion

User Interface and Connectivity

File Transfer Options

Let’s take a look at each of these components separately, and discover how they contribute to the wonderful process of 3D printing. 

Controller Board

Controller board is the heart of a 3D printer because it sends out commands to all other parts including the motors. It also sets the right temperature for the plastic filaments to melt, so that they take the shape of the object that needs to be printed.

Moreover, it sends gcodes from the slicer software to the parts responsible for the printing process. If you have a good controller board installed in your 3D printer, you won’t have to face a lot of difficulties while printing. You will experience a smooth 3D printing process. Just like a good motherboard installed inside your PC saves a lot of your time, a good controller board will benefit you in the same way. But what do we mean by a good controller board?

The processing power of a controller board determines how good it is. Normally, 8-bit controller boards are installed inside 3D printers but if you opt for the latest printers, you will notice that they come with a 32-bit processor, which is capable of processing more number of commands as compared to an 8-bit processor.  

Another option that comes with choosing a controller board is its connectivity. A controller board can either be wired or wireless. Wired means that it has the option of a USB port for external connections, while a wireless controller board uses Wi-Fi connectivity for communicating with other devices. A wired controller board is what everyone prefers, but if you are someone who likes to keep their devices prepared for the future, then opting for a wireless version is what you’d prefer.

The Ender-3 printer uses a BigTreeTech SKR Mini E3 V1.2 controller board, which is one of the most popular controller boards available in the market. It is an affordable board having a price tag of EUR 30.45, and it does not make a lot of noise while working. Other boards include BigTreeTech TFT35 E3 V3.0, Re-ARM with RAMPS 1.4, Duet 2 WiFi V1.04 and Smoothieboard 5X V1.0 ARM. The price of controller boards ranges from EUR 30 to EUR 160, you can buy the one that best matches your needs and your pocket.


The most important component of the 3D printing process is the filament. It is the raw material required for printing three-dimensional objects, analogous to ink cartridges in the traditional inkjet/laser printers. Filaments come in many colors and materials, so you can choose one according to your needs. They are made of materials that easily melt and take the shape of the object that needs to be printed.

There are various filament materials you can choose from, and each one has its own specific applications. You cannot use one filament type for printing all kinds of objects. For instance, if you want to print a Lego piece, you will have to opt for a PLA filament, since it has properties that will print a Lego brick similar to an original one. Here is a list of the basic types of 3D printer filaments that you will come across when buying one for yourself:

  • PLA
  • ABS
  • PET
  • TPE
  • Nylon
  • PVA
  • HIPS

Filaments are also available in other materials such as wood, metal, glow-in-the-dark and clay. But before buying a filament, you must know the properties of the filament such as melting temperature, electrical conductivity, mechanical properties, and aesthetic qualities. Reading up about the properties of various filaments will help you choose the right filament that best resonates with your requirements.

If we talk about the price range of filaments, a 1kg spool of 1.75 mm PLA filament will cost you around 20 Euros. If you buy a filament pack containing spools of 12 different colors, that would cost you a bit more but you would have a variety of colors to print.

When buying a filament, always make sure that you know its heating requirements, so that you can see whether your printer can accommodate heating a filament to high temperatures. Also, if you are printing some part that needs to conduct electricity, then make sure your filament offers electrical conductivity. Always keep your requirements in mind when purchasing a filament because that will save a lot of your time and money.


The frame of a 3D printer houses all of the electrical and mechanical components. It holds the components in place, and provides space for objects to be printed. Buying a frame might look like a simple decision, but there are many factors that need to be considered including:

  • Robustness
  • Aesthetics
  •  Printing space/volume
  • Cost
  • Assembly

These factors will help you choose from the different types of frames available in the market. Each frame comes with its own pros and cons; hence you must be very careful when buying one. This component will hold all the other 3D printer components in place and will ensure that the printing process runs smoothly. Let’s look at each of the 3D printer types.

1.      Joint and Member Construction

This is the most common type of 3D printer frame. It is a basic frame, very affordable and easy to construct. Bars or rods along with joints are used to assemble the printer components. Along with all the pros that this design offers, there is a disadvantage of this type of frame too. The printer components are not covered, rather they are exposed to open air, which is a concern since dust particles and other foreign objects can enter the printer and hinder the process of printing.

2.      CNC and Laser Cut

This type of frame is made by cutting pieces of acrylic/wood/plastic through a CNC machine or laser cutting. These pieces are joint together to form a 3D printer frame. This type of frame is very affordable and simple to assemble. All you need to do is join the laser-cut pieces together to form a frame. However, if you choose to get an acrylic/plastic frame, then after some time the frame will lose its beauty because of tiny scratches all over the surfaces.

3.      Metal Framing  

Metal framing is designed by means of injection molding. This process yields a large number of frames at a time, which is best for commercial use. Home users are not recommended to invest in metal frames. Moreover, these frames are not adjustable, since the parts are produced through injection molding. Hence, you cannot modify the frame later.

If we talk about the price range of 3D printer frames, 3D Printer Reprap Mendel Graber I3 Frame is available for 31 Euros. It is a laser cut frame made of plywood with a thickness of 6mm. It comes with a very small price tag, and is very easy to assemble. On the contrary, a very expensive frame is the FlashForge 3D Printer Creator Pro, which is a metal frame. It comes with covers that protect the components from foreign objects. This frame will cost you around 575 Euros, which is very expensive.

Motion Components

The motion components of a 3D printer include all such parts that move inside it, in the x, y and z directions, and contribute towards the printing process. The print bed and print head move on the instructions of the controller board, to create a 3D printed object. Let’s see which parts come under the umbrella of motion components and how do they work.

Stepper Motors

Stepper motors have the characteristic of working in steps, rather than working continuously like an ordinary DC motor, which gives them their special name. These motors inside a 3D printer help in building an object in multiple small steps. The printer head, printer bed, rods and screws move with the help of stepper motors.

Most 3D printers use the NEMA-17 stepper motors, which come in three famous variations, based on their torque rating; 20-25, 40-45, and 50-56 N-cm. Below, we will discuss the specifications of each of these motors in detail, so that you can choose one according to your requirements.

1.       20-25 N-cm

These motors are best suited for low torque applications, which do not require a lot of power. Portable 3D printers use these motors which are shaped like a pancake, hence called pancake motors. They are not suited for driving large loads and are mostly used for applications like direct drive extruders. They also have an advantage of fitting into small spaces where heavier and bulkier motors cannot fit.

2.       40-45 N-cm

These motors are normally used in 3D printers; hence they are termed as the standard choice of motors. They produce enough torque to move large loads at normal speed. You will find these motors in almost every other 3D printer available in the market. The Ender-3 also uses this stepper motor.

3.       50-56 N-cm

This is the most powerful stepper motor used in 3D printers. You won’t find a lot of printers using this NEMA-17 motor because it is too bulky, which is not what you’d want to use inside a 3D printer. These motors are not used for moving parts, rather they are used in a fixed position, because of their size and weight. These motors are useful when it comes to moving large print beds in specific applications.

Stepper motors for 3D printers can cost you up to 35 Euros, but you can also get one in as low as 10 Euros. The price depends on the type of motor you want to buy.


The second motion component of a 3D printer is the set of belts present inside it. The stepper motor connects to drive gears via belts which fit over the gears and allow them to move smoothly with the motor. Belts come in two shapes; either as a long strip which needs connectors to hold both its ends, or a circular piece that needs no such connectors.

What are belts made of? Well, usually the material used for making 3D printer belts is either rubber or its derivatives. Small teeth are present on the surface of the belts, which helps them to work in synchronization with the stepper motors. The distance between the teeth, their height and thickness are some of the key parameter that need to be kept in mind while choosing a belt. Moreover, the length of the belt is also important since it helps decide the tension it can bear while working.

The good news is that 3D printer belts are the cheapest component that you will buy, contrary to other parts which are pretty expensive. The price of belts ranges from 4-10 Euros, depending on the size and thickness. Always make sure you buy a belt of the right length and tightness, or else it might end up breaking into two pieces, leaving your 3D printer unable to function.

If we consider Ender-3, the belt used in it is a rubber belt of width 6mm, height 1.38mm and tooth height 0.75mm, retailing for about 10 Euros.

Threaded Rods

Threaded roads allow the 3D printer head to move up and down, in the z-direction. Belts allow movement in the x and y axes, while threaded rods cater the z-axis. Many people confuse threaded roads with leadscrews because they both look the same, but in reality, they have different properties.

You must know the correct dimensions of the threaded rods, according to your 3D printer, when you plan to buy one. The thickness of the rod will determine how the printer head moves, which will affect the printing process. If the rods do not yield the correct movement, the object will not be printed exactly as desired.

The price of threaded rods ranges from 4 to 10 Euros, depending on the measurements and the number of rods you buy.

End Stops

As the name suggests, end stops are an indicator for the printer to determine its location and keep it from exceeding its allowed limits. It helps the printer stay on the axis and prevent from derailing. If the printer goes beyond its range, it might end up damaging other parts. End stops can be divided into two types – mechanical and optical.

1.       Mechanical End Stops

Commonly known as end stop switches, these are mechanical devices that tell a printer head when the railing is about to end. It does so when the switch touches an object, it tells the controller board that the printer has reached the end of the path, and needs to go back. The downside of a mechanical end stop is that it needs to touch an object to know its position. When it hits multiple objects over and over again, vibrations cause the switch to shift from its original position and often times, become loose, which affects their precision.

The advantage of using mechanical end stops is that they are very cheap, you can get one switch for as low as 0.85 Euros and the price can go up to 5 Euros, which is not a bad deal because one end stop switch can last you a lifetime. 

2.       Optical End Stops

These end stops do not require physical contact, as the name suggests. This means there are lower chances of wear and tear as compared to mechanical switches. Optical end stops consist of two parts; a light emitter and a light detector. Both these parts lie on either side of a U-shaped object which slides on the railing. When the detector stops receiving light from the emitter, it means that there is an obstruction between the two parts, indicating that the printer has reached the end of its path/rail, and it needs to go back.

Since these end stops do not involve any physical contact, they detect the end of the railing from a distance and send an alerting signal to the controller board, which makes them more accurate as compared to mechanical end stops. The only drawback of these end stops is that their performance is hindered by varying amounts of light. For instance, if your printer is placed in a place where the light intensity is not constant, the detector might detect light from the environment and consider it as a signal to stop the printer head from moving forward, even though that’s not needed.

You might be thinking that these end stops would cost you an arm and a leg because of the amount of precision they are offering and the kind of technology they are equipped with. The good news is that these end stops are unbelievably low-priced. They typically cost around 1.7 to 5 Euros, which is a really good deal since they provide a very good value for money.

Power Supply Unit

The power supply unit, as the name suggests, supplies power to all the other components present inside a 3D printer. It is the most important part of the printer because without this, none of the other components can function. It can either be mounted on the frame of the printer or reside as a separate unit housed inside a box. You can choose its setting according to your preference.

When purchasing a power supply unit, you must know your usage beforehand because some filaments, such as ABS, require high temperatures for a longer period of time, which puts a strain on the power supply unit. In case your usage is such that it will put a burden on the power supply unit, then you must go for a high-power unit.

The output voltage of the power supply unit is a key parameter that can help you choose one. Normally, power supply units come in either 12V or 24V DC output voltage. You can read the requirement of the printer’s hot end and then opt for a power supply unit.

When purchasing a new power supply unit, you should check if it is working, before connecting it to your 3D printer. You can do so, by connecting the power supply unit to the mains switch, and then carefully measuring the output voltage using a voltmeter. It should read either 12V or 24V, depending on the type of power supply unit you are buying.

The Ender-3 uses a 24V, 15A power supply unit, which costs around 22 Euros. A typical 3D printer power supply unit won’t cost you more than 25 Euros. To save your power supply unit from burning out, its best to install a fuse and a switch with it. Since you are investing your hard earned money in buying 3D printer components, it’s a great idea to implement safety features with them and better be safe than sorry.

Print Bed

The print bed is the place where the final 3D object is formed. The filament material is deposited here, just like ink is placed on a piece of paper in the traditional 2D printers. Print beds come in two varieties – heated and non-heated. A heated print bed decreases the temperature difference between the hot filament material and the print bed. This improves the print quality and decreases the chances of warping.

A print bed can be made of either glass or aluminum, with the latter being more popular. Aluminum print beds are better because they heat up easily, while glass takes time to heat. Print beds also have the option of levelling, one by means of thumbwheels embedded below the bed. It allows the printing process to run smoothly, and the final product to be printed successfully, without any defects.

Apart from the type of material, print beds also come in different shapes. Some printers have square and rectangular beds, while others have circular beds which are not very popular. The Ender-3 has a square shaped, heated print bed with a length and width of 220 mm each.

Print beds can cost you around 34 to 127 Euros, depending on the shape, material and heating capabilities of the bed. You can choose a print bed according to your personal preference and printing requirements.

Print Bed Surface

As the name suggests, the print bed surface is the top layer of the print bed. It makes it easy to remove the object after it is printed, and saves it from sticking to the print bed. A good printing bed surface must allow the printed object to stick onto its surface properly, and avoid warping issues, which occur when the inner layer of the object remains hot while the outer layer has cooled down.

Print bed surface is usually made of either glass or aluminum, each having their own pros and cons. Using and aluminum print bed surface means heat will be distributed equally on the surface, since aluminum is a good conductor of heat. This will help tackle warping issues but the downside of using aluminum is that it expands when heated, which makes its surface uneven after some time.

However, using a glass print bed surface eliminates this issue. Glass does not conduct heat so warping issues would still be there. Moreover, glass is a fragile material, it can easily break when mishandled so you have to be very careful while using it.

It's totally up to you when choosing the type of print bed surface for your 3D printer because both materials offer their own set of advantages and disadvantages. A print bed surface might cost you up to 65 Euros, depending on the material and size. One of the most commonly used print bed surface is the BuildTak 3D printing bed surface, which comes in many different sizes. You can choose from their range of products available online as well as in stores near you.

Print Head

The print head is the part through which filament enters, melts and then takes the shape of the object that needs to be printed. It consists of two parts, the cold end and the hot end. The cold end is present at the top of the print head, and it is cold, as the name suggests. The filament enters through this end and goes down towards the hot end. A motor is attached with the print head, which allows the filament to travel from the cold end to the hot end.

At the hot end is a nozzle, through which the filament flows out. Before the nozzle is a heating chamber, which melts the solid filament into a liquid form. The liquid filament is then pushed out of the nozzle, according to the commands of the controller board. Nozzles come in different sizes, the most common is the 0.4 mm nozzle, made of brass. Other nozzle materials include stainless steel, ruby and tungsten carbide. Each of the materials are resistant to corrosion and offer a different set of advantages. You can read more about them and then opt for a nozzle according to your requirements.

Some of the most popular print heads include Zesty Nimble, Bondtech, Flexion, E3D Titan Aero, slice Engineering Mosquito, DisTech Automation Prometheus V2 and E3D V6. You can buy an extruder kit for as low as 21 Euros and a single brass nozzle will cost you 10 Euros.

Feeder System

A feeder system can also be referred to as the cold end, which is present on top of the print head. The filament is fed into the print head through this part. There can be two types of feeder systems; Bowden and Direct. Let’s look at each of these feeder systems one by one and determine where are they used.

In the Bowden feeder system, the extruder is placed much far away from the hot end. This implies that the filament has to travel a longer distance to reach the hot end of the print head. On the other hand, in a direct feeder system, the hot end and the extruder are placed near each other, and the filament drops directly into the hot end without the need of travelling a long distance.

Direct feeder systems are best for elastic filaments such as nylon which have the threat of stretching and deforming on the way from the extruder to the hot end. Having a short distance to travel, there is less room for the nylon filament to stretch and deform. However, since direct extruders are present with the hot end, they move along with the printer head while an object is being printed. This unnecessary movement of the extruder can cause damage to the final product, because of an added momentum that can cause the hot end to overshoot or become wobbly.

Bowden extruders have the advantage of working at high speeds since they do not have the extruder block sitting on top of the hot end. The extruder part is present with the body of the printer and does not move along with the hot end while printing. But the long distance between the extruder and hot end introduces a delay in the printing process because the filament takes time to reach the nozzle.

Another downside is that flexible/elastic filaments, such as nylon, which have the tendency to stretch, are at a risk of deformation because of the long distance they have to travel. In case they deform, you will notice strings and blobs present at the nozzle while printing, and that would hinder the printing process greatly.

Direct extruders are much simple to use and many people prefer using these only. But, in case you are comfortable with Bowden feeder systems, then it’s your own preference. You can go for which ever feeder system you think is a better option for you.

If we look at the price range of feeding systems, you will find a typical Bowden extruder for around 12 Euros, which is a great deal. The prices may vary according to the extruder manufacturer and brand.

Dual Extrusion

There are two types of extruders; single and dual. Single extrusion means you can use only one type of filament while printing your 3D object, that means there is only one nozzle present. On the other hand, dual extrusion means you can use two filaments together while printing your 3D object. Having two filaments means there are either two nozzles present in one printer head, or there are two different printer heads each having a different type of filament.

Whatever the case is, dual extrusion means you have the option of printing an object using two distinct colors and/or materials. You don’t have to deal with the hassle of changing the filament in the middle of the printing process, which is great.  

Some of the popular dual extruder 3D printers include Geeetech A20M, Flashforge Creator Pro, Monoprice Maker Select V2, BIBO 3D Printer, QIDI Tech X-Pro, CEL RoboxDual and Ultimaker 3. The price ranges from 185 Euros to 5100 Euros, it depends on how much you want to invest in a dual extrusion 3D printer. If you are someone who needs a 3D printer for printing parts for selling purpose, then investing in a dual extrusion 3D printer is a smart choice because it offers you with the option of creating multiple parts simultaneously.

User Interface and Connectivity

An attractive and easy-to-use user interface is what everyone wants. Most 3D printers are equipped with a basic user interface comprised of an LCD accompanied by a set of knobs or a keypad. Some advanced 3D printers offer a touch screen LCD interface, which is an attractive feature for most users because dealing with knobs and buttons can become confusing, but a touch screen is very simple and easy to use. Ender 3 is also equipped with an LCD accompanied by knobs for control.

In case your 3D printer does not come with an in-built user interface, you can always use an external device such as a computer to monitor and control your 3D printer. A basic user interface will allow you to measure the printer’s parameters such as its temperature and filament levels, and control the loading and unloading processes.

If we talk about the connectivity, some 3D printers come with a very useful option of Wi-Fi connectivity, which allows you to connect your printer to the network inside your house and control it while sitting in another room, via your smartphone. You won’t have to stand and monitor the printing process, rather you can sit back and relax on your favorite couch and let the printer do what it’s best at.

If you wish to buy a replacement LCD screen for your 3D printer, then it will cost you around 23 euros for a BigTreeTech TFT35 V3.0 touch screen LCD. You can choose a user interface for your printer according to your own preference and needs.

File Transfer Options

The very basic file transfer option is to connect your 3D printer to the computer via a USB cable. All 3D printers come with a USB slot to connect them to a PC for file transfer. Many people don’t like the idea of using the traditional method of connecting a USB cable because of the fact that their computers undergo sudden forceful shutdowns and restarts, which hinders the printing process.

Connecting the printer via an ethernet cable is another option available for users but this option is also not welcomed by many users. The third and most popular file transfer option is using an SD card or a USB flash drive. As a user, you need to upload a working printing file in the SD card/USB drive from your computer and then plug it into the slot present on the 3D printer. Then, you need to run some commands to initiate the printing process.

Final Thoughts

3D printers are not as simple as they look. Numerous components work together to execute the printing process. The process might sound simple because apparently one needs to insert a filament and pop in a few commands along with the printing file to initiate printing the object, but in reality, all of the above-mentioned parts play their role individually to run the 3D printing process smoothly.

3D printers are a great invention because you can design and create any part/object you want, without much hassle. The huge variety of printers, each having their own unique features, have made it easy for users to select one according to their requirements. They can customize the printer according to their own needs or opt for a DIY 3D printer, which perfectly fulfills their requirements.

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